Cancer grows and spreads by cell dividing. This is controlled by chemical processes within the cell which send a signal to start the division process. Sometimes a drug can be designed that blocks this chemistry; this is called a targeted therapy. Targeted therapies are also sometimes called biological therapies. There are various types of targeted therapies used to treat lung cancer. Each works in a different way to stop the growth and spread of cancer.
Targeted therapies only work for some people with non-small cell lung cancer. To find out if a targeted therapy may be suitable for a patient as the first type of treatment they receive, cancer doctors will have to test some of the patient’s cancer cells. This test is called either molecular or mutation testing.
Targeted therapy may be used as a second or third type of treatment for a patient who has already received another type of drug treatment. In this case, molecular testing is sometimes not needed.
Targeted therapies aren't a cure for lung cancer. However, they may stop the growth of the cancer and sometimes even shrink the tumour and lengthen life. They may also help improve a patient’s quality of life by reducing coughing, making breathing easier and helping to reduce pain.
Treating lung cancer with a targeted therapy
A patient is offered a targeted therapy as the first type of treatment they receive if their lung cancer is inoperable and they have had a positive test for mutations which respond well to a targeted therapy. Research has shown that targeted therapies are likely to work well for these patients.
Patients may also have been offered a targeted therapy as the second or third type of treatment they receive if they have already had chemotherapy but their cancer continues to grow or spread. Targeted therapies are likely to work as well as chemotherapy in these cases and may have fewer side-effects.
There are several types of targeted therapy licensed to treat lung cancer.
Targeted therapy treatments for lung cancer are continually developing. There are many clinical trials underway around the UK, and internationally, looking at the best way to treat lung cancer using a target therapy. Other targeted therapy drugs currently being researched to treat lung cancer include: cetuximab (brand name Erbitux) and bevacizumab (brand name Avastin).
Not all targeted therapies licensed to treat non-small cell lung cancer are currently available as a standard treatment on the NHS. When a new drug gains a European license it is available to buy and use as a treatment in the UK. However, NHS doctors are only allowed to use drugs which have been approved by either National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) or Scottish Medicines Consortium (Scotland), or are included on the Cancer Drug Funds list (England).
Receiving a targeted therapy
Targeted therapy drugs for non-small cell lung cancer come as a tablet, which are taken by mouth, every day, at home.
It is very important that the tablets are taken according to the instructions given by a patient’s doctor or pharmacist. Taking extra doses of some medicines can be harmful. In some cases even one extra dose can cause problems, and patients should always inform their doctor if they accidentally take an extra dose of their medicine.
Some other medicines can be harmful to take at the same time as a targeted therapy. Patients should tell their cancer doctor or lung cancer nurse specialist about any other medicines they take. This includes prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and herbal supplements.
Side-effects of targeted therapy treatments
All forms of cancer treatment have side-effects of one sort or another. Most people experience some side-effects from taking a targeted therapy drug. Side-effects vary from person to person and depend on what drug they are taking. An individual will not experience all side-effects and some people experience very few side-effects.
The important thing is for patients to tell their cancer doctor or lung cancer nurse specialist if they are having problems.
For more information on targeted therapies see our Targeted Therapies for Lung Cancer booklet